If terror is political theatre, ISIL is an Oscar winner

Despite Syrian regime’s barrel bombs, stories of ISIL hostages dominate the airwaves.

Protest in Amman demanding release of hostages captured by ISIL
Taking and killing hostages provides compelling narratives within complex conflicts, writes Denselow [Getty]

The painful death of Moaz al-Kassasbeh was felt across the world. Like those of Alan Henning, David Haines, Peter Kassig, Haruna Yukawa, Kenji Goto and many more before him, Kassasbeh’s death dominated the international headlines.

World leaders spoke to it, crowds rallied to it and policies were changed by it – most notably the decision by the UAE to stop air strikes over Syria to protect its pilots. Other policies, such as the western powers consensus around “no boots on the ground”, were likely reinforced and the debate over engaging President Bashar al-Assad grows ever louder as the enemy of my enemy argument wins people over. 

There can be little doubt over the effectiveness of ISIL’s hostage-taking as a tactic. By contrast to the large scale indiscriminate bombing of a city that kills and maims hundreds (the scenes like those we fleetingly see from Aleppo) hostage-taking allows attention to zero in on the very human story of an individual.

Getting to know the hostage

We learn about this individual, see photos of them in alternative contexts, meet their family and hear about their dreams all while the narrative of their potential release and survival hangs in the balance.

Rallies show support for Jordan air strikes against ISIL

hostage-taking is nothing new of course. During the Lebanese Civil War, the long term detention of western hostages was a huge issue. Some 96 foreign hostages of 21 national origins – mostly American and European – were held in Lebanon between 1982 and 1992.

From Colombia to Gaza, the stories of freed hostages, like Ingrid Betancourt and Alan Johnston, are told as stories, books or even Hollywood films. However if using “terror” for political aims is partly theatre then ISIL is taking the tactic to a whole new level.

The philosopher John Gray wrote in “Al-Qaeda and what it means to be modern,” that the organisation is “a by-product of globalisation … Its most distinctive feature – projecting a privatised form of organised violence worldwide – was impossible in the past. Equally, the belief that a new world can be hastened by spectacular acts of destruction is nowhere found in medieval times. Al-Qaeda’s closest precursors are the revolutionary anarchists of late 19th-century Europe”.

Tools of globalisation

ISIL, the extremist offshoot of an extremist organisation, is using the tools of globalisation to enact spectacular acts of hostage killing to capture and shape the agenda of the Syrian and Iraqi crises.

The horror and profile of these acts puts decision makers in a difficult position. While each killing brings out a round of condemnations and lots of use of words like “barbarians”, “sadistic” or “savages”, it also alters the dynamics of the US-led coalition currently operating against ISIL.

The horror and profile of these acts puts decision makers in a difficult position. While each killing brings out a round of condemnations and lots of use of words like 'barbarians', 'sadistic' or 'savages', it also alters the dynamics of the US-led coalition currently operating against ISIL.


While the UAE have got cold feet the Jordanians have vowed to step up their attacks despite a degree of opposition to the kingdom being involved in the conflict – as highlighted by Kassasbeh’s father himself.

It will be interesting to see what tactical adjustments are made by those countries running the air war in order to protect against the downing of aircraft and the capturing of hostages.

The paradox of the tactical approach against ISIL is that the conflict is important enough to kill for, but not to die for, or certainly not on the terms of your enemy like the hostages to date. 

There is also the issue of global disunity on an approach to hostages. While the US and the UK led the way when it comes to refusing to negotiate or pay ransoms for the release of their nationals (at least publically) other states, like Germany, Italy, France and Spain are willing to do so.

Exacerbating the problem

This disunity pumps money into the network of selling or transferring hostages, reinforcing and exacerbating the problem.

What’s more is the fact that the chief ISIL villain in hostage killing is apparently a British national known as “Jihadi John” (we know much about him from a released French hostage) has flagged the issue of domestic terrorism across Europe and impacted on both homeland security policy and a reluctance to allow in many refugees fleeing Syria’s collapse.

In short, the taking and killing of hostages provides compelling narratives within large scale and complex conflicts and their value to ISIL is clear, as we see for the investment they put into the films of the executions themselves and the responses from the political actors involved.

Both policy makers and the global public will have to become more thick-skinned in the future to avoid small radical groups holding the global agenda hostage itself. 

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.